It’s a time-honored strategy for political front-runners to minimize the number of debates with their underdog opponents; the bigger the lead, the less likely a candidate will want to jeopardize it by tangling with an opponent. Joseph P. Kennedy III, the scion of the famous political family, is the favorite to win election in the redrawn Fourth Congressional District, currently represented by Barney Frank. And while Kennedy hasn’t exactly been hiding from his Republican opponent, Sean Bielat, neither has he agreed to more than a bare-minimum three debates, only one of which — a roundtable sponsored by WCVB-TV, which aired last Sunday — was likely to reach a large audience.
Clearly, Kennedy wants to be highly visible and available to voters in the district without having to engage too often with his opponent. It’s too cautious an approach for a 32-year-old newcomer. Perhaps Kennedy does have the magic to re-establish a great political name in a new century, but he should have to prove it — repeatedly. Voters in the district, which runs southwest from the Boston suburbs to the Rhode Island border, deserve more than just smiles, handshakes, and gentle words. Kennedy should be challenged hard, and pressured to prove his worth. In the five weeks remaining in the campaign, he should agree to more debates.
Bielat, 37, has an impressive resume, including service in the Marine Corps, an MBA, and a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s — ahem — Kennedy School of Government. He also has the experience of having run two years ago against Frank, who, whatever his flaws, cannot be accused of ever ducking a debate; he and Bielat squared off nine times.
Of course, when Bielat himself was the favorite in this year’s Republican primary, his opponents accused him of ducking debates. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be allowed to engage with Kennedy more often. Even diehard liberals who are excited at the chance to vote for a next-generation Kennedy should recognize the benefits of having him go toe-to-toe with Bielat. Both are young, smart, and highly credentialed. Kennedy himself is a Harvard-educated lawyer, with stints in two local DA’s offices. But political success must be achieved in the arena. With a famous name, a reservoir of goodwill left behind by his grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy, and his great-uncles, and a massive fundraising advantage, Kennedy has all the poker chips on his side of the table. They will keep him in the game. But to win, he has to meet — and beat — his opponent in the flesh.